Tereasa Mansfield and her husband have over twenty years of experience working with children from hard places. In 2014, they started fostering teenagers in addition to young children. Professionally, Tereasa has worked in various roles for a children’s home including providing direct care and educational services to teens. She now serves as the Foster Parent Navigator for Saint Francis Ministries, an organization that provides foster, adoption, and prevention services.
We sat down with Tereasa to hear her story and to get her advice.
Foster TX: What led y’all to start fostering in the first place?
Tereasa: Honestly, in the beginning, it was to grow our family. But I don’t think that’s a good reason anymore! That’s what got us into it, though. It ended up being because we wanted to be a safe place for children to be while their parents do the work they needed to do.
FTX: What are the biggest challenges of having teen children? Teen foster children?
T: It is difficult to determine the balance between independence for the teen and the parenting that we need to do. How do we balance respect for the independence they’ve already had and their need for parenting from us?
A lot of teens who come into foster care have already been parenting themselves in addition to their siblings. They sometimes don’t see the need for an adult to tell them what to do. And those who have younger siblings feel protective and if they’re with them, they want to be the ones to take care of them and if they’re not, they worry about them.
FTX: So that conflict comes in when they have to yield some of their self-parenting and parenting their younger siblings to foster parents…
T: Right! This fits into the purpose of parenting. Kids don’t always do a great job parenting themselves. They can pick up bad habits that might need to be corrected. We have to choose which battles to fight. Is it hygiene? Nutrition? Who they’re spending time with? How is school going?
All the things that so many parents involve themselves in, we [foster parents] have to determine which battles are worth fighting. What do they really need? We have to determine what’s most important so we’re not completely changing their lives and making them feel like they’re not good enough.
They survived! They see themselves as doing really well sometimes. If we come along and nitpick, it isn’t good for our relationships and it’s belittling to them.
FTX: I see. You see lots of system-involved kids so preoccupied by this self-parenting that they aren’t always able to focus on the things we wish kids and youth could focus on like school, basic hygiene, and having fun.
T: Right! Sometimes they had to keep themselves safe and alive in their original home, so it is understandable.
FTX: What are some strategies you used in the beginning to guide this process?
T: They want you to be curious about them. And they especially like if you think they’re cool and interesting. They want to know that someone is invested in them and cares what they think.
Also, constant supervision is important but making it look hands off through watching from a distance. Being available when they do talk to you is so important. If they tell you they don’t like the rules, listen! Agree with what you can. Empathize and be willing to make compromises. Give them some control.
FTX: Great! Would you say it’s been a success?
T: Who knows? To put it nicely, you have to be willing to change your expectations of what success means. All teenagers are going to do dumb things, they’ll make decisions they shouldn’t have made and they’re going to put themselves in danger. Success is when the relationship is still intact at the end of the day. When they can call you for help (and that doesn’t mean they always will) no matter what, that’s success.
It’s really about keeping and repairing that relationship.
FTX: Ok. What are the rewards of working with teens?
T: The conversations are so much richer if you develop that trust. You get to see the growth. Teens are more likely to keep in touch themselves.
It’s so cool to go to a business and you see a former foster youth working. They’re happy to see you and they want to talk about what they’re doing in their lives. You get to see their successes and what they’re excited about.
We see quite a few of them around town. I worked with one teen who grew up to adopt a sibling. That was her goal! She’s doing really well.
For me, the biggest reward really is the relationship I already talked about. You can connect with toddlers but with teens, it can be some much richer and lasting.